For all the UNESCO World Heritage sites peppering Prague, the city’s one defining image is the Castle. Sitting on its lofty perch high above Malá Strana, the Castle was founded in 880 by Prince Bořivoj, and is – according to the Guinness Book of World Records – the biggest in the world.
Rather than being a castle in the traditional sense, this one is more like a huge complex (70,000 m²) containing hundreds of buildings, including palaces, galleries, shops, museums, gardens and religious houses. Often mistaken by tourists to be the Castle itself is the awe-inspiring Gothic edifice of St Vitus Cathedral, which is the seat of the Archbishop of Prague, and resting place of many Kings, Queens and Holy Roman Emperors. If you have one handy, have a look at a 50 CZK coin – it’s on there too.
Because of its sundry attractions, it would be difficult to do everything the Castle has to offer within a week, let alone a single day or afternoon. This walk then, will take you via all the most significant sites of interest, citing along the way, further ones you may wish to explore in more detail.
Walk starts: front gates of Prague Castle. Take tram 22 to either Pražský hrad or Pohořelec. Ends: at the southern gardens of Prague Castle. Nearest metro stop: Malostranská.
The below-listed tour can be walked on your own (self-guided tour), or we can arrange for you a professional English-speaking guide. The tour guide can even tailor this walk to your special needs, for example recommend a place where to stop for lunch, including a river cruise or tram ride if you are tired walking, etc. The guide can pick you up at your hotel, or you can arrange to meet anywhere in the city. Email us your details for price quote.
1. As you enter the main gate of the Castle facing Hradčanské náměstí, turn around and marvel at Ignác František Platzer’s stone giants, who happily club their enemies to death atop this entrance. In this first courtyard, you also have the opportunity to get your photo taken with one of the grey-suited guards that stand either side of the Gate. Do your best to make them laugh, but they’re made of even sturdier stuff than those in London. In past centuries, these guards had even less to smile about: they were paid only in accommodation and firewood.
2. Something else these guards have in common with those in London is that they change on the hour. This elaborate ceremony – introduced by former Czech President Václav Havel – is usually a bit of a tourist-tussle, and you’re advised to stand to the left of the Gate, where you’ll get a better view of the proceedings and won’t be shifted to one side as the guards exit (unlike those less-informed tourists on the right). The best time to watch the changing of the guards is at noon when a special musical rendition is given. Next, walk over to the 17th century Matthias Gate, designed by the Italian Giovanni Maria Filippi, and named after the Holy Roman Emperor (a list of the countries he ruled is noted below his imperial insignia). The Matthias Gate stood here freely for 150, when the Maria Theresa extensions were built around it.
3. Walk through the Gate, into the second courtyard, at the heart of which is a gorgeous stone fountain, completed in 1686. You can try perching on the edge to rest your feet or get a snap, but beware the pedantic staff, who shoo tourists off it every few minutes. Near to the fountain is one of the Castle wells, complete with intricate Baroque wrought iron cover. The Castle’s water supply was once believed to be guarded by the water sprite Pakit, and if water sprites are your thing, consider a trip to the State Opera, which often has showings of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka, the story of a water goblin’s daughter who falls in love with a human prince. The facades which surround you here, and did in the previous courtyard, were modified by Austrian architect Nicolò Pacassi. It was Picassi who oversaw much of the Castle’s rebuilding after it was severely damaged during the Prussian siege and occupancy of 1757. The north wing houses Prague’s picture gallery, as well as the Spanish Hall, where Emperor Leopold I was said to have once conducted an indoor hunt and killing of a wild cat with his children.
4. The good news is that most of the Castle’s outdoor attractions are free. Many interiors, however – and Golden Lane too – require a fee of 250 CZK. A more expensive ticket incorporates the art galleries also, but this particular walk can be done with the cheaper ticket.
5. The Castle complex offers plenty of diversions for those who like to wander, and if you’re one of that breed, the passageway on the left side of the second courtyard will take you across Prašný Bridge and into the northern Royal Gardens, containing a wonderful display of fountains, and summer houses now converted into art galleries. Our walk continues through the Castle complex, taking the east passageway from the second courtyard, and delivering you to the doorstep of the Castle’s most prestigious building, St Vitus Cathedral.
6. This Roman Catholic cathedral – founded in 1344 and then reconstructed by Josef Kranner during the mid-19th century – is an exquisite example of Gothic architecture, and the third religious building to have stood upon this site. Before it came a Romanesque rotunda in 925, and after that, Prince Spytihněv II’s much larger basilica.
For centuries, St Vitus was the place of coronation and burial for Bohemian kings. Inside is to be found the tomb of St. Wenceslaus (he of the Christmas carol fame), and also John of Nepomuk, who was drowned in the Vltava at the behest of Wenceslaus. St Vitus himself is the Patron Saint of Bohemia, not to mention that of actors, comedians, dancers and epileptics.
The Cathedral interior includes some breath-taking windows, notably those in the north nave painted by Alfons Mucha, and also Frantisek Kysela’s Rose Window, depicting scenes from the biblical story of the creation.
7. Once St Vitus has dazzled you significantly, continue through to the third courtyard, where it is believed once stood the stone throne of the Bohemian Princes. Today, its centrepieces are Josef Plečnik’s memorial to the dead of the First World War, and an iron statue that depicts St George slaying the dragon. This was cast in 1373 and is the oldest free-standing statue in Bohemia to be found outdoors. The courtyard is also the best place to do some gargoyle-spotting; among those lining the roof of the Cathedral, look out for dragons, scorpions, and musicians.
8. Opposite the cathedral, on the east side of the courtyard, the Old Royal Palace was founded in the 9th century, and ever since has undergone countless renovations under the auspices of many emperors. The Palace’s outstanding features are its Vladislav Hall, which hosted all sorts of merriments such as balls, markets and feasts. During World War II, the Hall is where the priceless Czech Crown jewels were hidden in order to protect them from bombing. It is said that any false king to don the St. Wenceslas Crown will die within in a year; a myth that became even more popular after Nazi protector Reinhard Heydrich reportedly did so, and was soon after assassinated by Czech parachutists. Recently, Václav Havel lay here in state. The Hall’s Riders’ Staircase is so named because knights could enter the Hall up here, without dismounting from their steeds.
9. Exiting by this very staircase, and down into St George’s Square, you are now face-to-face with the St George Basilica, thought to be the second oldest church in Prague. If you find this hard to believe, owing to the building’s Baroque façade, its dark Romaneque interior speaks of a much longer history. As well as containing permanent art exhibitions, the Basilica also plays host to regular music concerts; its excellent acoustics guaranteeing fine performances – recommended if you can make one.
10. Continue past the Basilica, down Jiřská, where on your right is the Rosenberg Palace, a place where impecunious, unmarried noblewomen used to reside. Before reaching the Lobkowicz Palace (the only privately owned building in the Prague Castle complex) coming up on your right hand side, there is a left turn that leads to Golden Lane.
11. This colourful row of miniature houses was built at the end of the 16th century in the architectural style known as as ‘Mannerism’. As you enter Golden Lane, the White Tower looms in front of you; this served as a prison for noblepersons, including Katerina Bechynova of Lazany, who in 1534, was left to rot here following the murder of 14 people. Another dungeon, the Dalibor Tower, stands at the other end of the lane. Although Golden Lane has been somewhat spoilt by the number of giftshops that now litter it, each house remains fascinating in its own right. At the blue house of no. 22, Franz Kafka lived for a while, while prophetess Madame de Thebes – who was killed by the Gestapo for foretelling Nazism – once inhabited no. 14. In 1831, there was an explosion at one of these houses, upon which fire-fighters found the body of an old man clutching a nugget of pure gold. Some believe he had found the secret of alchemy, and died with it.
12. From the Dalibor Tower, a walkway will take you to the Supreme Burgrave’s house and courtyard (this position was of the highest order below that of the King). Here is a nice space to stop for a beer or coffee, and you can also revisit your childhood at the well-stocked toy museum, which is particularly proud of its collection of Barbie dolls. The courtyard’s oddest curiosity is the statue of a boy, whose penis younger tourists like to rub for good luck. Exiting the courtyard via its main gateway, veer left where you will slope down to the Castle’s eastern gateway. Directly outside this is another splendid vantage point (this one replete with telescopes). Whenever you’re ready, continue down the steps, which will take you to Malostranská tram and metro stations. If, however, you’re visiting at a time of the year when the weather is more accommodating, about turn, and go through the small entrance which leads to the Castle’s South Gardens.
13. This small, yet resplendent terraced garden boasts a circular pavilion, Baroque fountain, two obelisks and a giant bowl, not to mention numerous vistas of the ancient roofs of Malá Strana, and across the Vltava. Although dating back to the 16th century, the Garden’s current incarnation was designed by the architect Plečnik in the 1920s. Daily at 10am, the Garden’s opening is heralded by the Castle Guard buglers, who play from its Hartig Music Pavilion. Either continue to the western Garden entrance, bringing you back to our starting point, Hradčanské náměstí, or retrace your steps to the eastern entrance gate. Descend the long stone staircase to Klárov street and turn right. Walk past the Malostranská metro stop and across the Mánes bridge and you’ll find yourself at the Rudolfinum.